Last month, a group of six lucky chefs from the Rockpool Group converged in South Australia’s lower Eyre Peninsula to explore one of Australia’s and the world’s most unique and prized seafood destinations. This trip provided a precious opportunity for our chefs to immerse themselves in the source of some of their spectacular produce and to put a face to the name of a handful of our suppliers, who make what we continually strive to deliver on the plate, a reality.
Our chefs share their three day itinerary…
Boston Bay Smallgoods – Peter Robertson, Sous Chef Rockpool Est. 1989
After touching down in Port Lincoln we were met by fisherman Pugs (Andrew Puglisi) from Kinkawooka Shellfish, Development Officer Mark Allsopp from the Eyre Peninsula Food Industry and farmer Jason Stephenson from Boston Bay Smallgoods. Meet and greet completed, we set off straight away to visit Jason’s farm that overlooks the shores of Boston Bay.
Now, for a region that produces some of Australia’s best seafood, I was left scratching my head as to why rather than purchasing a boat and getting his fishing licence (which has proved very successful for most of the people we met on this trip), Jason begun buying up property in Boston Bay just over a year ago. It turns out however that the Eyre Peninsular has been producing grain for longer than it has seafood and Jason has put this relatively unknown fact to very good use.
Jason not only farms free range pigs, the majority of which are Berkshire and a few Tamworth to get the herd numbers going during start up, but the grain to keep the farm going as well. He utilises an (unfortunately) rarely used system of rotation whereby the farm is split into four sections. The pigs are run over the harvested crop to happily dig out the roots and onion weed, fertilising the soil as they go. They pigs are then moved along, leaving the paddock to rest or be replanted.
The pigs’ diet of crushed grain is supplemented with milk, which gives the meat a delicate sweetness while helping to increase intermuscular fat. From a farming stand point this is certainly not the easiest way to produce but there is no better way to maintain the providence of your product. It’s really a very special product and I look forward to being able to get my hands on it back here Sydney.
Southern Bluefin Tuna and Hiramasa Kingfish – Michael Clift, Executive Development Chef for the Rockpool Group.
After a good nights rest, we’re up at the crack of dawn to take a first-hand look at Sekol Tuna operations out at Spencer Gulf. Their Southern Bluefin Tuna are wild caught as juveniles in the Great Australian Bight using a purse seine net and slowly, very slowly, towed back to the local, calm waters of Port Lincoln. Here the tuna are transferred into large holding pens, where they’re fed a natural diet of sardines, herring and mackerel until they’re ready for market, which is anywhere from 3 to 8 months.
We watched as a huge amount of local, sustainably fished sardines were loaded on to the feeding buoy, where they slowly fall into the water for about 3000 tuna to eat. We stayed a while watching these powerful torpedo shaped tuna powering through the water feasting on sardines for their breakfast. These tuna are caught by hand and harvested using the now widely-used Japanese ikijime method – this is considered the fastest and most humane way of killing fish, while ensuring the high quality of the product. Our own extensive research, coupled with strict fishing quotas, best possible practice by fisherman and a continual increase in Southern Bluefin Tuna biomass, has meant we now feel confident in reintroducing Southern Bluefin onto our menus.
Next we headed over to the Cleanseas Hiramasa Yellowtail Kingfish sea pens. Unlike the Bluefin Tuna, these Kingfish are farmed and then placed in the sea cages to grow, where they’re fed a custom pellet containing taurine to help them grow and enhance their sweet flavour. The size of these sea pens is staggering – a pen that’s 30 metres in diameter and around
20 metres deep is home to about 35,000 kingfish! We stayed to help feed the Kingfish, watching patches of water churning vigorously anywhere we sprinkled the pellets. It really is an amazing fish, with a rich, sweet flavour and creamy texture.
Kinkawooka Mussels – Corey Costelloe, Head Chef Rockpool Bar & Grill Sydney
After traveling out to the deep waters of the Spencer Gulf to see the Hiramasa Kingfish farm and the Bluefin Tuna holding pens, we returned to the shallower waters, where Andrew Puglisi from Kinkawooka grows and harvests native bluelip mussels. The waters off Port Lincoln are absolutely pristine and you can see why there is such an abundance of marine life. Everywhere you look, the water is teeming with small organisms and when you peer over the side of the boat, the water shimmers with all the movement.
When we pulled up to the grounds we saw rows of buoys, 10 to the row. From each row there were long ropes that dangled into the water that the mussels attached themselves to and grew off. The boys from Kinkawooka were working one of the buoys when we arrived and Pugs was keen to get us off the boat and onto the working Mussel boat to lend a hand! I don’t envy the boys working the mussels as it looked like back breaking work. Each of the buoys was lifted onto the boat by a pulley system and then someone would clean the buoys as they were pulled on board, whacking them with a shovel. Just the cleaning of the buoys was enough to make the chefs wince in sympathy.
After the buoy was cleaned, the rope is put through a pulley system that strips off the attached mussels. Barnacles, sea sponges and lots of seaweed also become attached to the rope but Pugs has a great machine for sorting all the mussels as they move down the conveyor and into a sort of rumbler that separates the mussels from the rest of the catch.
At this point we helped ourselves to some of the just-harvested mussels and cracked them open to see what they were like. On first taste they had a sweet sea flavour that we’ve come to expect from mussels, but then came a bitter after taste that was hard to shake. Pugs couldn’t help but laugh – he knew exactly how they’d taste and didn’t warn us! Instead he chuckled: “bloody chefs, always tasting things before they are ready.” Thankfully he proceeded to cook up a small bowl of mussels on the boat in a microwave with nothing but their own juices. Now these mussels were incredible! They were so sweet and briny that we (politely) asked for another bowl.
Back on dry land we were treated to a tour of the factory where the mussels that we saw just get pulled out of the water, be loaded into giant hoppers ready to be cleaned, de-beared and ready to be packaged live. The smoothness of the entire operation, that is, the quick turnaround from ocean to dispatch, really blew me away.
Back in Sydney I treated the staff at Rockpool Bar & Grill to a dinner of spaghetti with mussels, garlic, chilli and parsley. I think the staff were even more pleased that we didn’t skimp on the mussels either!
Pristine Oysters – Zac Nicholson, Head Chef Rockpool Bar & Grill Melbourne
The next morning we took a 45 minute drive out of Port Lincoln to Brendan Guidera’s oyster lease in Coffin Bay. His company is called Pristine Oysters and he is widely regarded as the best oyster producer in the area. We have been using his oysters at all the Bar & Grills since the day we opened and they are without a doubt, the best Pacifics I have ever eaten.
After a quick tour of the factory where we saw piles and piles of oysters being graded, we were off to see where the real magic happens, out to the growing fields in the Bay. We were blessed again with a perfect day and it took a bit of convincing to understand that these guys can’t always get us seafood due to bad weather as we hadn’t seen a drop of rain yet!
The water was like glass and the sun was beaming down as we cruised along at a pretty hefty pace on Brendan’s boat. When we arrived at the first lease, his deckhand jumped in the water and started throwing up baskets full of lovely little Kumamoto oysters for us try. We were all getting pretty excited…
We all started shucking and eating our fill. The oysters were perfectly formed and no bigger than a walnut in their shell, it was hard to believe how plump they were inside. The flavour was sweet, salty and refreshing with a nice creamy finish. We all got in some waders so they could take a few photos in the water. Mine had a hole in them, which left me with wet socks…
There were a few sea urchins hanging around just under the oyster barrels, so we were treated to some lovely fresh uni which is unlike anything I’ve eaten before. Rich and buttery like custard with a clean lemon flavour at the end. There was also a cockle fisherman on the boat, who had a rake with a mesh bag attached for scooping them straight out of the sand. In the space of about 5 minutes, he had gently raked up a decent pile on the deck of the boat. Being collected so gently meant that there wasn’t even a grain of sand in them and they were lovely raw
We moved on to another of Brendan’s leases where he is growing Angasi or native oysters. This species is typically larger in size with a muddy, even dirty flavour, originally only one for the real oyster die-hards. This certainly isn’t the case here. These guys are grown in the same way as the Pacifics, resulting in a clean and salty taste but with with a far richer flavour. It’s completely changed my mind about Angasi oysters and they are back on the menu this week!
After eating about 3 dozen oysters (each that is!), we headed back to port for a delicious lunch at 1802 Oyster Bar. Being out on the boats that day was the highlight of the trip for me, it makes you appreciate the produce even more when you see how hard these guys work to get it right. I cannot wait to go back.
‘Rockpool on Boston’ – Dan Masters, Head Chef Rockpool Bar & Grill Perth and Ben Pollard, Head Chef Spice Temple Melbourne
On the final night of our trip we cooked up a big, banquet-style dinner for about 120 guests, including suppliers, at the breathtaking Boston Bay Winery, which is the closest vineyard to the ocean in Australia. The event was dubbed ‘Rockpool on Boston’ and Chef Tony Ford, the owner, even made us hats!
Two days prior, Zac, Peter, Michael and I had dropped in to meet Tony and see where everything was at with produce and protein ordering. Tony and his guys had everything under control. Most of the seafood would only be arriving late Monday or early Tuesday as it was all still to be caught. Tony showed us around his place and we went through the details of the evening. On the night of the dinner, we arrived at the winery around 3pm to join Tony and his chefs in the kitchen. Guests began to arrive at 6.30pm to enjoy some freshly shucked Kumamoto oysters (from Brendan of course) on the lawn.
Thanks to Jason from Boston Bay Smallgoods, we had a great open fire BBQ set up out the front for us to cook on, and it worked an absolute treat. First course was Kinkawooka’s Spencer Gulf King Prawns. These prawns were delivered to the kitchen that afternoon still moving – can’t get any fresher than that! We marinated them in lemon zest, garlic, ginger, chilli flakes, sage oregano and coriander before roasting them in their shells over the open fire. To follow were big, sharing plates of Southern Bluefin Tuna Tartare with Moroccan Eggplant and Cumin Mayonnaise as well as a Ceviche of Hiramasa Kingfish served with Chilli, Endive and Citrus.
For the mains we cooked up fresh King George Whiting ‘Jiang Xi’ style and Southern Calamari ‘Hong Kong Typhoon Style.’ The calamari was done over the fire before being tossed in a rich and spicy black bean paste and finished with crispy fried garnish. Mussels opened gently over the fire and were served up with Shiitake, Fennel and Chilli Condiment. Last but definitely not least was Boston Bay Smallgoods’ Crispy Pork Belly with a Fish Fragrant Dressing, Black Funghi and Smoked Tofu. It seemed like everyone, including the staff, were loving these dishes! Tony and his chefs organised massive platters laden with amazing cheeses for after dinner and Corey put up an 8kg suckling pig off the rotisserie for those who like their desserts a bit meatier.
Dinner was followed by a short Q&A session where we got a chance to talk a little about the dishes we’d just served, our restaurants, and our experiences over the last three days on the Eyre Peninsula. Zac’s public speaking prowess put us all to shame – he had the whole room in stitches! We spent the next few hours mingling with the guests, meeting all the local fisherman and growers and enjoying a glass of wine.
Some heartfelt thank yous are indeed in order to all those who made this trip not only possible, but incredible. Firstly to Andrew Puglisi, the man with the vision, to John Susman of Fishtales, who brought that vision to life, and to Anthony Huckstep for documenting the trip and doing a fantastic write up. Huge thanks go to Tony Ford and his team at Boston Bay Winery, to our suppliers who gave us some once in a lifetime experiences, and to Mark Allsopp for looking after us so well, providing an amazing showcase of the region and giving us a renewed enthusiasm for this truly wonderful produce. We truly cannot wait to go back.